Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Gooba Gabba, One of Us, or Thoughts on Tod Browing’s Freaks

A century before reality TV, tattoos and body modifications, audiences were just as fascinated with the unusual and the odd, and the traveling freak show was a common way to safely indulge in that voyeuristic desire.  The birth of cinema introduced a new form of cheap, widely distributed entertainment and Tod Browning, director of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula (1931) had the brilliant and still controversial idea of making a horror movie using actual sideshow performers instead of monsters or make-up.
“Offend one and you offend all,” the carnival barker warns at the start of the film, as the movie literally brings you into the sideshow complete with human torsos, conjoined twins, bearded ladies and the innocent microcephalics, referred to at the time as pinheads.  The audience quickly grows accustomed to the deformities and the movie settles into the story; a love triangle between Cleopatra, the beautiful trapeze artist, Hercules the strongman and Hans, the diminutive ringleader. 
Hans is played by Harry Earles, who you might recognize as one of the Lollypop Guild from The Wizard of Oz (1939).  He is bedazzled by Olga Baclanova from the silent film The Man Who Laughs (1928), an early influence for the Joker for Bob Kane and Bill Finger.   There are pre-code hints at premarital sex and caravan sharing, very scandalous at the time and yet so chaste by modern standards. There’s a lot of bare shoulders and swooning.  The irony is all that swooning and making whoopie is done by the normal people, and the freaks are portrayed as having more stable married relationships.
The broad and exaggerated acting can be distracting to a modern audience, but these actors came from a background in radio and silent film, in addition to the circus.  Talkies were still a novelty in 1932 and the first half of the film is crammed with sound, with a calliope playing constantly under the dialogue.  The second half is dominated by the thunderstorm, and the scenes of knife-wielding pinheads and human torsos crawling through the mud lit by lightning flashes is still disturbing and will stay with you long after the movie’s over.
Freaks was not well received, suffice it to say audiences and critics freaked out, and it was a career ending film for Tod Browning.  He directed four more films including Mark of The Vampire (1935) before retiring in relative obscurity.
There’s no way this film would be made today, or ever again, and it is difficult to watch from a modern perspective. It’s not exploitative, the sideshow performers are portrayed respectfully and the director Tod Browning came from a circus background.  The only time the performers are referred to as freaks is by Cleopatra during the infamous and humiliating wedding dinner.  And yet concurrently the movie is at its core exploitative, because we’re watching people with physical deformities entertain us for our viewing pleasure. 
However in our age of reality TV and prank videos, we’re more than willing to laugh at car crashes, drunken arguments and people failing at all sorts of things.  It’s the same fascination channeled into something relatively more acceptable.  But then again, we also live in an age where Peter Dinklage can win a couple Emmys and Warwick Davis can make fun of his stature in his brilliant series Life’s Too Short.  Nowadays there’s room for all kinds of performers in our entertainment universe, and we are all the richer for it. 


my first novel? thanks for asking:) I wrote a 4 book supernatural martial arts series concerning the ongoing feud between a group of kung-fu killer witches in san francsico’s chinatown.